Project Runway: “It’s All About Me”
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Project Runway: “It’s All About Me”

If there’s one thing we’ve learned about the creators of Project Runway, it’s that they don’t know how to leave well enough alone. I’m not just talking about the modern-day 90-minute running time, although that certainly is Exhibit A in the “Let’s Overdo It!” file. I’m talking more about how the Bunim/Murray folks seem to have this unspoken list of boxes that Project Runway needs to check, and when the show goes too long without hitting every single one of those prerequisites, they get nervous and try to force it. And then you get boring, plodding episodes like this one.

Look, Project Runway has a nice season going here. Maybe you wouldn’t marry season 10, but you’d take it to the ice cream social and have a swell time. It has a good mix of designers, many of whom bring clearly defined perspectives to their work (unlike the miasma of aimless mediocrity that presided over season nine). And the designers are also a varied bunch of characters, many of them likeable.

What season 10 doesn’t have is a ton of Major Life Drama. None of these people are especially broken—there’s no prominent extracurricular baggage weighing them down. So while we get the usual tears and frenzies of workroom stress, the Project Runway producers, ever the lachrymal connoisseurs, demand that we get personal-life tears, too. Because those are the most delicious, apparently.

The especially stupid thing about “It’s All About Me” is that it takes a perfectly good challenge—the HP TouchSmart Touch Your Own HP Fabric Inspired By HP/Intel challenge—and attempts to turn it into a hokey, pre-packaged tearjerker. Because, you know, that thing happened that one time with Mondo two years ago, when he told the world that he was HIV positive, so now the fabric challenge has to be the Dealing With Heavy Shit episode.

Heidi kicks off the proceedings. She greets the designers on the runway in a skin-tight dress with a faux-rubber band around the chest, an apparent tribute to that time Donald Duck got stuck in a tire. Back in the workroom, Mondo appears. In a testimonial, Fabio says, “It’s Mondo? Oh my God, this is actually really cool.” He’s stunned that he doesn’t have to feign enthusiasm for the “exciting!” guest of the week, and probably relieved, as I imagine his mouth is still sore from fake-smiling through that Lord & Taylor lady’s spiel.

Yes, Mondo is here, and it’s wonderful to see him. He returns for the self-made textile challenge, the scene of his greatest triumph. (I’m happy for his Project Runway All Stars victory, and it’s impressive that an entire reality show was commissioned to engineer a win for one man, but let’s not pretend it’s the same as winning first prize on the main stage.) Mondo delivers some inspiring words. “I think we do our best work as designers when we show truth.” That would sound like a cliché coming out of someone else’s mouth—a stiff line recited off a mental index card by some soulless corporate drone. But it sounds authentic from Mondo, in part because we know he lived it.

We get a desaturated flashback of that season-eight moment in case you missed it the first time. The moment is still remarkable, not just for Mondo’s soul-baring, but also for the fact that you can see Nina Garcia’s heart grew three sizes that day and pounded with compassion, at least temporarily, before returning to its indefinite standby state.

Back to the present, and early signs of trouble. The specific challenge is to create a fabric based on the designers’ “cultural heritage,” or at least Project Runway’s incredibly broad definition of “cultural heritage,” which seems to be “anything that might make you cry.” Poor Tim Gunn, always the ultimate trouper, is forced to repeat the HP brand name in various permutations until the eighth and 16th letters of the alphabet lose all capacity to signify.

The special guests—mothers, boyfriends, etc.—arrive to deliver the contestants’ “cultural heritage dossiers.” Misty-eyed moms hugs their children while awkwardly hanging onto HP laptops with one hand, a vignette that only Bunim/Murray could love.

The dossiers turn out to be photo albums from each designer’s youth. I’m sure that the officers of the Polish consulate were swollen with pride when they learned that the entirety of Polish culture, past and present, could be represented by a photo of 10-year-old Melissa posing awkwardly in roller skates. These HP dossiers are positively bursting with culture and heritage—to say nothing of cultural heritage!

I realize that the title of the episode is “It’s All About Me,” so there’s a little self-awareness here, but still, there is not quite enough self-awareness to account for the over-the-top narcissistic vibe here. I mean, they are forcing the designers to be inspired by pictures of themselves. It’s textile onanism.

And you can tell that the show is just trotting out the “This Is Your Life” routine to soften up the designers—so that later, the cameras might then crack that shell and pry out these people’s scrumptious darkest secrets. The producers can only hope against hope that one of this year’s designers has an HIV surprise, or at least has some sort of chronic disease or other terrible sadness. They dream of “hidden love child!”; they’ll take “impetigo!”

Instead, they’ll get nothing and like it. “When my grandmother passed away, there were ladybugs everywhere,” says Christopher—surely a stirring tale for those entomologists in the Project Runway audience. “I like your story,” says Ven’s sister, in response to his decision to draw a picture of a flower. Keep in mind this is the stuff that did NOT get edited out.

The closest the producers can come to the heartbreaking fare they desire is Gunnar’s repeated declarations that he was bullied in school. And I certainly believe that this is true and that it was painful for him, but it also feels like we keep hearing the first two lines of a “The More You Know” PSA over and over again. Since it’s unlikely that the editors would leave out any juicy details, you have to conclude that Gunnar didn’t want to talk about the bullying in much detail, which is his prerogative. Frankly, good for him. This episode’s Mondo flashback and clumsy heartstring-tugging would have cheapened any emotional confession, anyway—it feels too much like the show is desperate to recreate a moment that arose naturally and has passed naturally. 

In any case, I was more intrigued by Gunnar’s statement that “I’m going to do old equestrian, because it’s just so close to my roots,” suggesting that he is descended from horses. “Gunnar Deatherage” would be a pretty badass racehorse name, after all.

The loved ones are at the Atlas apartments when the designers get home, and more nothingness happens. At this point, Project Runway is that pathetic guy who refuses to admit that he’s not going to get lucky tonight. Everybody involved just wants to call it a night, but the show is like, “No, c’mon, let’s party! I think that one designer over there might be adopted! I am SO into adopted chicks!” It’s all somewhat unseemly but mostly boring. “Do you find it hard choosing the fabrics?” asks Sonjia’s mother, and Sonjia repliezzzzzzzzzzzzz

The next day, the designers’ custom fabrics arrive. “Fallopian tubes. Vagina and a penis,” mutters Fabio as he observes his design. And while this feels like yet another “I eat food out of the garbage, so I can be matter-of-fact about anything!” affectation from Fabio, it’s true that his design looks like a cross between a Rorschach test and a Flashdance one-sheet.

Melissa has a problem with the challenge. “I don’t DO textile dresses,” she says. It sure seems like the designers have spent a ton of time this season telling us about the things they don’t do. And while their whininess has been a mild irritant for a while, this particular whine pushes me over the edge. Maybe it’s because the tedium and ham-fisted production of the episode put me in a bad mood, but seriously, Melissa, did you really sign up for this program thinking, “I should be able to make it through just fine, as long as I don’t have to make a dress from a textile”? It is a goddamn reality show where you make clothes, so shut the hell up and make clothes already. THAT GOES FOR ALL OF YOU.

Oh, and producers, I know you include these little sound bites to make it all the more “amazing” in those instances where a designer succeeds in breaking out of their “comfort zone,” but this is such a cheap and ineffective trick. That’s like me saying, “Gosh, writing down my embarrassingly impassioned opinions about some past-its-prime fashion reality show is something I just don’t do.” And then I do it, and HOORAY! I deserve a prize. No. That is not how life works.

Anyway, back to the textiles. Gunnar’s fabric is about him being bullied, and the pattern depicts a bird about to be crushed by skeleton hands. While Gunnar may not be forthcoming with details of his adolescence, from these clues I think we can assume it went something like this:

Tim comes to visit. It looks like Dmitry is making some sort of Spider-Man-themed jacket, with fabric panels that look like they’re hovering in midair. It already looks pretty cool. He’s in good shape. Tim approves!

Then it’s on to Ven. Tim does not approve! He takes one look at Ven’s crumpled wads of pink-on-white flower pattern and says, “I see an homage to a menstrual cycle. I mean, it looks like cloths that have soaked up blood.” The other designers recoil a bit from this brutal truth. Often, this “Can you believe what Tim just said?” reaction shot is an inauthentic cut, but it feels real here.

Then Tim does a thing I can’t recall him ever doing before—crowd work! “Designers, am I crazy? Does anyone else see it?” he says. This stuns the group even further. Dmitry calculates that somebody needs to say “yes” for the scary time to end, so he meekly agrees. Sure, Tim, now that you mention it, Ven’s work does bear a certain resemblance to post-ovulatory secretions. Thus affirmed, Tim turns back to Ven and says, “I just hope no one’s offended by it.” Finally, knowing that his point has been made but unable to contain his disgust, Tim adds: “Because they look like maxi pads.” 

Ven appears shaken in a testimonial. “This challenge, the flower, it just means a lot,” he says as he sort of chokes up and sort of storms off in a sort of huff. Here we see another demonstration of Ven’s favored method for conveying meaning: Say that things mean stuff. Along the same lines, he later says, “I definitely see my story in the print—it’s definitely a reflection of me, my aesthetic, and who I am.” Right, and who the hell is he? Ven likes to use these designer words—story, aesthetic, “who I am”—but he doesn’t offer any substance to flesh them out, either in his words or in his garments, which tend to be rather sterile even if they are pretty. He doesn’t appear to have much of an ethos to fall back on. And as a result, I’m not really surprised that when he’s pressed in this episode, he ends up making yet another freaking fabric rose.

The show spends an inordinate amount of time in the L’Oreal makeup and hair rooms, the Project Runway equivalent of a football team calling runs between the tackles to kill the clock. At last, enough of the viewing public’s life has been wasted, so we are allowed to arrive at the runway. Mondo is a guest judge, for good reason, and so is Anya, for some reason. When she appears on screen, I am 90 percent sure that the producers will find some way for her to win the challenge.

Elena and Fabio are safe. Elena clads her model in wallpaper from a SpongeBob SquarePants-themed hookah bar, and Fabio qualifies for the next round by obscuring his fabric’s graphical salute to Freud behind a tasteful layer of organza.

Christopher tries a similar organza trick to hide his even more horrid print—which evokes the entrails of a hundred small rodents—but his tailoring is less capable than Fabio’s, so the sheer fabric creates a little bit of a “garbage bag poncho” effect as it billows around the dress’ hem.

While Christopher is technically in the bottom three, it’s clear that he’s not in the bottom two. The judges find about a hundred ways to tell Christopher that his dress is not really good yet not so bad. Apparently, it’s fashion-neutral, neither in nor out, but instead caught in a para-dimensional singularity of adequacy.

Gunnar and Ven occupy the bottom two. Ven’s dress has the signature Fabric Roses—By Ven! touch on the skirt, with his hibiscus print functioning as something of an afterthought in the bodice. “To me, she looks like a Hawaiian airline hostess,” Heidi says to Ven. Then she fantasizes aloud about the lei going around her neck, like she’s doing one of those relaxation exercises where you picture yourself on a tropical island. The judges quietly move on, allowing their frazzled Teuton companion to drift off in her reverie.

Anya has won Project Runway while Mondo has not, and she gamely maintains the pretense that this is not a desecration of all known reason, volunteering her expert opinions at every opportunity. She says to Ven that his garment “feels like it’s three dresses in one,” which I guess by her standards is two-and-a-half dresses too many.

It seems like the judges are just now noticing that Ven does this flower thing every freaking time—“You’re a fabric florist at this point,” says Michael Kors—and while I am happy to see Ven get taken down a peg, it does seem somewhat unfair. Variations on this theme have gotten Ven halfway through the season, so it’s a bit rich for the judges to crank the indignation level to 10 when he repeats it once more. Then again, if I feed chicken to my cat Nipsey too many days in a row, one day he will instantly decide he doesn’t like chicken anymore. I guess my mistake was presuming that the judges were more thoughtful than my cat Nipsey.

Gunnar’s garment is just strange. I mean, this is how strange it is: The print design is a drawing of two skeleton hands mime-strangling a bird, and that is the least weird thing about it. The silhouette of the jacket borders on optical-illusion territory, insofar as it’s hard to pin down no matter how hard you look at it. It’s as if Gunnar took an elderly woman’s housecoat from the Salvation Army, lopped off the bottom third, and added details from a discarded junior-high marching-band uniform. Fittingly, the judges can’t figure out whether the jacket looks too old or too “junior”—they are confident, however, that it is not something a consenting adult would choose to put on her body.

Melissa’s dress earns decent praise from the judges. On TV, I wonder if some of the more appealing details got lost amid the noise of Melissa’s busy “bloodlines” print pattern, because I couldn’t see all the shapeliness and chic-ness that the judges do. It struck me as a standard dress in a dazzling red-and-white print. In fact, since I knew that the “Hawaiian airline hostess” line was coming (thanks to a “coming up on Project Runway” bumper), I thought it might apply to this dress.

Still, I can see how Melissa would end up in the top three in this week’s lackluster field. And I instinctively took Melissa’s side when Anya reprimanded her by saying, “You could have pushed it a little bit further” with a straight face. You remember Anya from last season, right? Never satisfied with the familiar? Always pushing boundaries—and then PUSHING THEM AGAIN?

I thought the judges’ praise for Sonjia’s work was a touch effusive, too. The pants and the top are both quite well-constructed, and the top in particular has an elegant firmness to its shape that reminds me of her winning “Legend Of Zelda” jacket from a couple of weeks ago. That is to say, I have no complaints about the top. Yet this is the print challenge, and on the pants, Sonjia’s print is pretty dull. To wit: “I chose red, white, and blue because I’m American. And black because I’m black,” she explains, hastening to admit that all this might be a weensy bit literal. “Literal” used to be Kors’ favorite verbal bludgeon, but he passes it up here. “If it wasn’t right, it would look like Pac-Man was eating her crotch,” he says, somehow making it sound like the height of admiration.

I cast my lot with the judges (well, most of them) with regard to Dmitry, however. His look is a big success, and not just by default. The jacket with its quasi-hovering panels is like a tasteful work of sci-fi, yet it also plays off the more traditional folk look of his diamond-pattern print. Mondo is the one dissenter, arguing that while the jacket is “the showstopper,” this is the print challenge, and the jacket hides the print. It’s clear he’s leaning toward Sonjia, who aims to win the challenge the same way Mondo did, with an impeccably tailored pant serving as the centerpiece. Nina counters—rightly, in my view—that “the jacket is phenomenal because of the print,” and that’s the end of that. Surely she must savor the opportunity to once again vex the aims of her sworn nemesis, Mondo Guerra.

The judges kibitz. The conversation turns to Ven, and the judges wonder how he ended up doing this flower thing again—hasn’t Tim discouraged him about that? And then holy shit Tim comes out and talks to the judges. I can’t remember the last time I was as tickled by a Project Runway moment as I was with this. He recaps Ven’s first draft for the judges: “What I saw at the critique, I called an homage to a menstrual cycle.”

Then he goes into further detail, his voice quavering, as if he is describing to the judges what their loved ones’ bodies looked like after they got hit by that train. “It was all this pleating that was fanned out, with the hibiscus red being in the middle.” The judges are horrified. Tim gathers the strength to vent further—“I want to share with you my own frustration about him”—and as he wraps it up, Kors gives him a little “Yeah, okay,” shooing Tim away. Kors is amusingly threatened by this interloper on his turf. If Tim had stuck around any longer, I think he was liable to stand up and urinate on his chair.

Dmitry wins. Super. The elimination comes down to Ven and Gunnar, so either way this is going to be a big moment. Ven is spared. He mutters a little spiel about how he’s capable of doing a lot, and he is going to show them, et cetera. Heidi is having none of it. She says, “I’m telling you, if we see this flower thing one more time…” and then she gives this little whistle through her teeth—shades of Fantastic Mr. Fox—a gesture that impeccably conveys the sentiment: “You’re outta here.” I love it. Heidi Klum, never change.

Gunnar’s out. Upon his ouster, he becomes a human doll who recites self-help platitudes every time you pull his string. Zzzzzt! “Everything happens for a reason.” Zzzzzt! “It’s not my gig. It took me coming back to understand that.” Zzzzzt! “It wasn’t about the win for me. It was about coming here and committing.” Gunnar, Gunnar, Gunnar. It’s standard practice to choose one trite rationalization for your loss and stick to that story. Some people just don’t know how to leave well enough alone.

Stray observations:

  • I say this with a lot of admiration and respect for Mondo Guerra, but I have to admit that it’s hard to take a fashion critique seriously when it comes from a man who has chosen to wear short-shorts to a gig where he has to sit in a tall director’s chair. On camera. That is not a good look.
  • There were a few shots in the “goodbye” scene with Christopher and Gunnar facing each other in the designers’ lounge—two guys with the same facial hair and the same haircut, except Gunnar has that blond streak in his. It was like seeing Kirk and Mirror-Kirk face off against each other on Star Trek. Okay, it was like seeing Gay Kirk and Mirror-Gay Kirk face off against each other in a gay fan-fiction version of Star Trek, but same idea.
  • I know it’s an acceptable variant now, but it still bugs me that Lifetime’s bumper at the end of the pre-judging commercial break reads “Judgement Time.”
  • Melissa: “It really is outside my box.” And we couldn’t be more delighted.
  • Andie MacDowell is still workin’ it in those L’Oreal commercials.
  • I’ll be writing most or all of the reviews for the remainder of the season. (I’m not sure why the “What’s On Tonight” article from yesterday said that I was stepping in for a “guest review”—maybe somebody knows something I don’t!) I might have to take a week off because I’m busy with Gameological video projects, but other than that I plan to stick around.

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